More on The Savage Detectives

The Quarterly Conversation has a few articles on Roberto Bolaño, including one on his recently translated novel The Savage Detectives (my review here). It reproduces a poem by the mysterious founder of the “visceral realist” movement Cesarea Tinajero in whose search the two “detectives” in the novel set out for. The only published poem by Tinajero, and which perplexes the two is:

Javier Moreno observes that one needs to see Bolaño’s work as a whole, rather than individual works:

None of Bolaño’s books can be seen as an island, completely isolated from the rest. Each one is crucial to the overall goal in its own right. There is a constant and intense dialog among the novellas, short stories, and novels. Figuring out the precise shapes and natures of these links should be an occupation for the interested reader.

Scott Esposito explains the posthumous popularity of Bolaño:

To a very large degree, Americans are preoccupied with questions of what future they are passing on to the next generation. Bolaño shows us how these questions work on a personal level, and By Night in Chile especially shows us the enduring humanistic fibers that link our 9/11 to Chile’s 9/11. There is much talk about Americans writing the post-9/11 novel these days, but perhaps the post-9/11 novel has, thus far, best been written by a Chilean.

There is also an interview with Natasha Wimmer, translator of The Savage Detectives into English:

 

Q: And lastly, which of Bolaño’s novels is your favorite?

 

A:That’s easy–The Savage Detectives. The others all have their own appeal, but The Savage Detectives is just the easiest one to fall for. And I’m not the only one who feels that way. There’s a reason that it made Bolaño a cult figure, and it’s probably no coincidence that it’s also the most autobiographical.

Chris Andrews who has translated both Bolaño as well as Cesar Airas comments about translating Bolaño:

One difficulty that crops up frequently in Bolaño is how to translate regional familiar language: Mexican or Chilean slang, for example. If you use regional terms in English it can be confusing for the reader, because they will hear the Chilean or Mexican character as an Australian, say. So you have to try to respect the level of informality, make the expression fit with the character as he or she has been constructed, and rely on other markers of locality in the context. Just occasionally, I think, the best solution is to leave the word in Spanish, but only very occasionally (as with chido in Amulet).

The new issue of the excellent World Literature magazine has a good collection of a number of Latin American authors, including Cesar Aira’s How I Became a Nun, Bolano’s Amulet, Eduardo Galeano’s Voices in Time (warning: pdf format). The issue’s main focus is, however, a review of Chinese literature.

Update: The New York Review of Books has a review essay by Francisco Goldman on all the novels by Bolaño available in English:

In Garcìa Márquez’s writings, wrote Vargas Llosa in 1971, the “social and political theme, although essential to those fictions…appears in an oblique manner.”[4] (The famous scene of the massacre of the banana plantation workers in One Hundred Years of Solitude passes like a brief hallucination within the spectacular whirl of that novel, yet we never doubt Garcìa Márquez’s political sympathies with them.) Such a novelist, wrote Vargas Llosa, declares war on mundane reality and attempts to supplant it: “To write novels is an act of rebellion against reality…. Every novel is a secret deicide, is a symbolic assassin of reality.”

Bolaño did write about political violence directly, though in a way that couldn’t have been further from the literature of “denunciation” that Garcìa Márquez condemned. He even claimed that violence functioned in his writings “in an accidental way, which is how violence functions everywhere.”

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The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

While we were still under the spell of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a new generation of Latin American writers arrived.

A scintillating star in the galaxy of this new generation undoubtedly is Roberto Bolaño, who died at the age of 50 four years ago. Principally a poet, he increasingly has been recognized as an important contemporary novelist. Starting with By Night, in Chile to the most recently translated work The Savage Detectives, and the much awaited translation of his longest work 2066, his voice is very unique, and imploring to be heard. When The Savage Detectives was published nine years ago in its original Spanish version, it was hailed by some as the greatest thing to happen in the Spanish speaking world since Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Bolaño was born in Chile,but lived most of his life in Mexico, briefly going back to Chile when Salvadore Allende came to power, and returning after the infamous September 11 coup.

The novel is unduly long, 575 pages filled in a most unusual way, violating some of the most fundamental “rules” of writing, and especially novel writing. Except for complaining about the length of the novel- about 400 pages would have been ideal and the first part that is filled with excruciating, even nauseating details of the sexual proclivities of the “visceral realists”, there is little to complain about the novel, and much to deliberate over.

Divided into three parts, the bulky middle one- titled “Mexicans Lost in Mexico”- is sandwiched between two rather thin ones. Part one introduces us to some of the central characters in the novel- Arturo Belano (an alter ego of the author) and Ulises Lima, both founder poets of the visceral realist movement that set itself the task of transforming the poetry landscape not only in Mexico, but the entire Latin America.

In a way, the novel is autobiographical, not in one, but two ways. It traces the story of Artur Belano, except that instead of him writing his autobiography, it is people that know him who write about him. Each one of the 55 people either write their personal journals at various times between 1975 and 1997, or sometimes converse directly with the reader. The long middle section novel consists of little more these entries, some short, but some rather long so that like Don Quixote, there are stories within stories, between them charting a landscape both fascinating and unexpected in its meanderings.

The other novel that comes to mind is Hopscotch by the Argentinian Julio Cortazar, a novel about a group of Bohemian Latinos in Europe. In the case of the characters in The Savage Detectives, the word Bohemian is an understatement!

There is no plot in the four hundred or so pages in the middle section. In the first section, narrated by a character- with no particular literary qualities, the two protagonists (the “savage detectives”) go out in search of an unknown predecessor, Cesárea Tinajero, who after initiating a now forgotten school of poetry in the 1920s has disappeared in the northern borders of the Sonora desert. The novel returns to the theme only in the last part, when the meanderings of the middle part- the umpteen journal entries, become clearer, and the title of the novel begins to make sense.

What emerges, is the story of the “lost” generation of Latin American writers that grew up in the shadow of giants like Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Octavio Paz. While the previous generation protested against the existing political and social order they invariably also became part of that system, with those like Garcia Marquez becoming friends with political leaders like Fidel Castro, Vargas Llosa himself running for the Peruvian presidential candidacy (though as a candidate of the Right) and Octavio Paz serving the PRI government in Mexico as a diplomat.

At the end, the novel leaves one with images floating across turbulent waters, a mosaic of paintings flitting past speedily. Fifty- five characters speak in their own voices- for the uniqueness of each Bolaño has to be commended. The word that occurs most frequently in the novel is “I”, the breakneck speed of the narrative- not so much action as speed, and the concurrent narrative from multiple geographic places and from various dates on the calendar- in a word, the novel is very much that belongs to our age dominated as it is by accelerated communications around the globe.

Is the novel then a reflection of the senseless chaos that seems to prevail around us? Is it the post modern dystopia- all narrative and no plots, no certainties? At one level, Bolaño’s novel would seem to indicate so. At another level, it pulls the rug from under the feet of such a world.

***

Related Posts on Roberto Bolaño at this blog

There have been a plethora of reviews in the last two months of The Savage Detectives, many are available at this excellent site on Spanish literature.

The novel has a site of it’s own. Check out the biographical essay (pdf) in the “About the Author” section.

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Cross- posted at Desicritics 

Mexico City after 1968

Carmen Boullosa recollects the literary scene in Mexico City,which was the meeting point of many writers exiled from South America in the early 1970s, and which forms the backdrop of Roberto Bolano’s recently translated novels Amulet and The Savage Detectives.

Paz or Huerta, that was the question. We never thought about whether we were for or against “magic realism.” There were many stars in our fictional firmament in the early ’70s, and most of them–Julio Cortázar, José Donoso, Jorge Ibargüengoitia and García Márquez himself–worked in a variety of genres: realism and journalism as well as imaginative and fantastic literature. And yet there was a division among the fiction writers that paralleled the opposition between Octavian and Efrainite poets. There were those who admired La Onda (The Vibe), a realist literary movement that was Mexico’s version of the Beats, a group of young urban novelists whose prose was the equivalent of Efrainite poetry. On the other side were those who saw themselves as the heirs of Juan José Arreola, Juan Rulfo and Adolfo Bioy Casares; what they espoused wasn’t magic realism but an imaginative frame of mind, open to ghosts, madness and dreams (as in the fictions of Borges, Bioy Casares’s novel The Invention of Morel, or the jewel-like short stories of Silvina Ocampo). The members of this second group were, in a sense, the narrative counterparts of the Octavians. Neither of these “schools” required their followers to adopt a linear narrative technique. The better you know the tradition, the better you can subvert it; we knew that.

Two Novels about Mexico, 1968

 

 

 

 

 

1968 for Mexico, as for many countries around the world, marked a year of student protests, culminating in what has come to be known as the Tlatelolco massacres. Wishing to change the oppressive one party rule of the PRI students revolted in the backdrop of persistent, if not rising social inequalities.

Two recently published novels are on this theme: The Uncomfortable Dead by the Mexican writer of mysteries, Paco Ignacio Taibo and the leader of the Chiapas’ revolt, Subcommandante Marcos and the other one is by the Chilean writer who lived in Mexico in those years Roberto Bolaño- Amulet.

Amulet is thematically similar to Distant Stars, another Bolaño novels also published in English last year– both lie at the intersection of literature and politics.

Amulet deals with the generation of Mexican poets that grew up after the 1968 suppression of student revolt. It is narrated by a woman Auxilio Lacouture, an ‘illegal alien’ from Uruguay and who hides in the bathroom of the UNAP university in September ’68 as the military cracks down on the students. She survives to play ‘mother’ to a generation of Mexican poets growing up in the shadow of the aborted revolt.

There is something about Roberto Bolaño that even in translation he is so readable, like Tomas Eloy Martinez, a contemporary Latin American writer from Argentina.

However, compared to Bolaño’s earlier novels published in English- By Night, In Chile and Distant Stars, this Amulet is somewhat disappointing despite a promising start.

It also forms a link to his novel published in English last week The Savage Detectives, which is certainly the longest work by this writer, who died prematurely at the age of 52 couple of years back to be translated into English.

The Uncomfortable Dead, on the other hand, is a uniformly wonderful novel, and combines the narrative of a racy suspense thriller with a deeply social and political perspective- an intersection that a delighted Zizek would term as the ‘Parallax view‘.

Since it is a suspense novel, I’d rather not comment much on this except to point out that Elías Conteras, an Indian from the Chiapas, is a wonderful Sancho Panza like character who lives much beyond the novel. His first person account of urban Mexico, as well as the Chiapas struggle is both deeply humorous and moving.

This is, for example, how he describe Mexico City- the ‘Monster’:

The Monster has big houses and small ones, tall ones and little bitty ones, fat and skinny, rich and poort. Like people, but without hearts. In the Monster, the most important thing is the houses and the cars, so people get sent underground, to the metro. If people stay up their in car country, well, the cars kind of like get very pissed and try to gore them, like bulls would.

In the city, they don’t really know how to speak the language, they don’t even know the difference between a mare and stallion; they just call everything a horse. Then there’s cool. When city people don’t know how to explain how they feel or when they are angry or when they are happy or anything like that, they just say cool.

I found the escapades of this rather subaltern character, that somehow persistently reminded me of The Good Soldier Sjevk, most gripping, and the novel a worthwhile read, even if the rest had not been written as well as it actually is.

There is yet another minor similarity between the two novels- in both the authors themselves appear as characters. Roberto Bolaño appears as Arturo Belano in Amulet and Subcommandante Marcos in The Uncomfortable Dead as himself- the El Sup.

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Belated Happy Birthday, Gabo

During the early, celebratory tenure of Rajiv Gandhi, thirteen writers were invited to spend some time in India for a literary rendezvous.  The event, like its godfather Rajiv Gandhi, is hardly remembered – not even Google finds anything on the event, and you have to trust my memory.

But even then, the event was hardly noticed, though this seven-word-poem captured the attention of a local newspaper, and it remains imprinted on my mind ever since.

United States,

Where liberty is a statue

A person called Gabriel Garcia Marquez quoted these lines penned by Chilean poet Nicanor Parra.

A few years later, thanks to the attentive eyes of a friend, I got to read a novel by Marquez himself. My friend had found the book in a used books shop in Mcleodganj near Dharamsala. I devoured the book with a raving ferocity. His books were rarely known in India at that time, except perhaps in some highbrow intellectual circles.

To say that I was impressed would be an understatement; I had never read anything like that before. I made notes, the only ones that I ever made on a typewriter, and they appear below, untampered. My enthusiasm has not waned since then.

I went on to read all of Garcia Marquez’s published works, and though I haven’t read any work of fiction by him in the last decade (unless one counts his autobiography as one!) , I must admit that I continue to be fascinated by Gabo, as he is known in Colombia, his native country from where he has lived in exile for many years now.

The next Latin American writer that I read happened to read was Mario Vargas Llosa, whose passing mention in an interview that Garcia Marquez had with the Mexican revolutionary Subcommandante Marcos, invoked my interest. It turned out later that there was an infamous altercation between the two. The Mexican journal La Jornada published a picture of Garcia Marquez with a black eye, apparently taken immediately after the altercation.

Recently one heard, with suffused elation, that the two had made up. Marquez’s agreeing to a new edition of his magnum opus One Hundred Years to have an introduction by Llosa, has been cited as a literary thaw in Latin America.

Belated Happy Birthday Wishes, Gabo. (March 6 was his 80th birthday)

A wonderful site on Gabo that has been around for longer than I can remember.

(Image acknowledgement: Journal Peru)

***

(Notes on One Hundred Years of Solitude, I read it in 1991)

This is a masterpiece of a novel by a foremost Latin American novelist in contemporary literature. The story is woven around a family which moves over two centuries of pain, suffering and ecstasy and shares them with the town of Macando founded by Jose Arcadio Buendia and who is the first head of the family. Despite the extrovert nature of most of the family members, the successive generations in the family continue to suffer a strange and an almost nauseating feeling of being alone and embracing solitude.

Through the family line, there are two discernible strands of personality symbolized by Arcadio and Aurelanio- the former typifying the extrovert self coupled with an adventurous spirit and the latter embodying a rebellious and subtle spirit. The novel evolves through the contradictions and struggle between the two strands of nature through five generations.

The recurrence of the Arcadios and Aurelanios makes one feel that history is moving in a circle and out of which there seems to be no way out. Yet that is not the case. For the novel is not about a family in the far- off jungles of South America. The family and its experiences are only a metaphor.

The tale that Marquez wants to tell is about our own selves. The trials and tribulations of the family are not new and unrelated but part of our existential set of problems. Arcadio and Aurelanio are not two separate beings but very much the dual personalities within ourselves. Solitude is perhaps the pinnacle of the existential predicament. And as Marquez warns the discerning reader, no race of people is fortunate enough to experience its past again. No man is reborn.

If one has to break the cyclical, aimless wandering of the spirit, it has to be done in the now. In this sense, this novel is a call to action, not a mere novel to be read and forgotten. It is an elixir that has to be absorbed inside the body so that it becomes a part of the Self.

The narrative of the novel is not straightforward but moves through a maze of subtle and often innocuous looking images and metaphors so that one finds ghosts and phantoms of the dead and the forgotten moving and interacting with the living and the real. The transmission of  ideas and inventions from the world outside to the remote village of Macando takes place through wandering gypsies so that what reaches them is
a bunch of scattered and seemingly unrelated ideas.

The formation of the world view of the founder Arcadio Buendia and his successors is expressed using a mixture of myth, fantasy and science that evolve through the corruptions of the spoken word, mingled with songs and tales. Flying carpets and disappearing acts are a part of the hazards.

The untiring and fruitless efforts of  alchemists and the dreams of the pioneers of flying transport one to the times of struggle and hope. Of ecstasy and excitement.

One also shares the rigors and defeats of the Auriliano Buendia, who fights thirty-two battles and loses them all. Naturally, he fights on behalf of the revolutionary forces. But ultimately, his craving for solitude overpowers him, and he surrenders–both in the field as well as spiritually. He ends up a lost man with a lost cause. By the time he realizes his error, it is already too late, and his friends are no more to start a fresh war with the Conservative government. But he, too, leaves behind a rich legacy which his nephew tries to carry forward–with equally disastrous results. And then, the town relapses into obscurity again. Auriliano Buendia, the once legendary hero, too, is forgotten, remembered only by the only great grandchild who survives.

 ***

Update : Gabo takes a walk with Fidel on his birthday last week.

“This morning I had a visit with Gabo, who showed up here. He’s here.”

Link via John Baker.

The Burning Plain and Other Stories by Juan Rulfo

Not even a previous reading of Juan Rulfo‘s novel Pedro Paramo could have prepared me for this collection of short stories (The Burning Plain and Other Stories) that read like a novel painting a dark, sombre and chilling picture of Mexican life- more often than not of the underdog, the thief, the bandit, a murderer or a peasant.

The feeling that one gets while reading is of a smoky, dark night filled with suspicious shadows hiding still darker secrets that pour out of the words and sentences of the stories.

See this description of a daybreak (in the story At Daybreak) in which the main character is accused of killing his landowner, even though it was the latter who kicked him, and then died because of a heart attack.

San Gabriel emerges from the fog laden with dew. The clouds of the night slept over the village searching for the warmth of the people. Now the sun is about to come out and the fog rises slowly, rolling up its sheets, leaving white strips over the roof tops. A gray stream hardly visible, rises from the trees and the wet earth, attracted by the clods, but it vanishes immediately. Then the black smoke comes from the kitchens, smelling of burned oak, covering the sky with ashes.In the distance, the mountains are still in shadow.

A swallow swoops across the streets, and then the first peal of dawn rings out.

The lights are turned off. Then an earth- colored spot shrouds the village, which keeps on snoring a little longer, slumbering in the color of the daybreak.

They gave us land is the story of peasants given a piece of land bereft of water.

A big fat drop of water falls, making a hole in the earth and leaving a mark like a pit. It’s the only one that falls.

The opening story Macario is Kafkaesque and is narrated in a monologue of an idiot boy, in fact most stories are in the form of a monologue, of a people trying to know about themselves, of introspecting, searching for an identity, something to hold on to as they are washed up in a river of tumultuous time.

One of the early writings of what came to be called magical realism. The magic still holds. Spellbindingly.

Inside Macondo

Matthew Fishbane explores literature from Colombia beyond the shadow of Gabo, its best known literary icon.

But it’s a truism by now to say that magical realism, which rounded out the postwar writing that became known as the Latin American boom, is just honest reporting in a realm where absurdity reigns. To wit: A station in Bogotá’s cherry-red articulated bus network has been christened “21 Angels” in memory of the schoolchildren who were crushed nearby under a falling hydraulic excavator. It’s not magical realism, see, it’s what actually happened: A flying steam shovel landed on top of a school bus, and 21 children who had nothing to do with war were transformed into angels.

With Borges by Alberto Manguel

More knowledgeable friends have often expressed consternation, if not contempt, for the fact that I have never quite ‘taken to’ Borges.

Silly as it may sound, but the fact is that I could not proceed beyond a few (well, actually just a couple) of his stories that I don’t even remember.

My reasoning is that I am a reader of the novel, not the short story, and then also novels in the tradition of the 19th century novel at least in their concern for social and political issues.

Borges does neither.

In fact, I was surprised by a statement attributed to him- that the novel is an unnecessary form since a good writer can express the same in a short story (or words to that effect) .

Jorge Luis Borges himself was a master of the short form.

His genre is also the fantasy, something that does not appeal to me for similar reasons.

It turns out that my views are not exactly original. In his early years, Borges was criticized on these very grounds (which makes me feel ancient.)

This and much else comes to light in Alberto Manguel’s slim, almost Borgesian volume, With Borges whose English translation came out last October.

Manguel read to the great Spanish writer when the latter was fifty eight years and had turned blind, and Manguel himself was sixteen years old. He was one of the many people who had the privilege of reading to Borges and it is very clear that these four years at that impressionable age left a lifelong imprint on his mind and his style of writing.

With Borges is part recollection and part an insightful literary excursion into the writings of Borges.

He brings out in one breathless sweep, the great man’s wide reading, his ability to correlate different works and ideas, his love for ‘inventive memories’, his disdain for convention when it came to writing, or reading for that matter, and his belief that the universe is a book.

There are writers who attempt to put the world in a book. There are others, rarer, for whom the world is a book, a book that they attempt to read for themselves and for others. Borges was one of those writers. He believed, against all odds, that our moral duty was to be happy, and he believed that happiness could be found in book, even though he was unable to explain why this was so.

Elsewhere he remarks:

For Borges, the core of reality lay in books; reading books, writing books, talking about books. In a visceral way, he was conscious of continuing a dialogs begun thousands of years before and which he believed would never end. Books restored the past.

Borges considered himself to be, above all, to be a reader.

…reading is, for Borges, a way to be all those men he knows he’ll never be: men of action, great lovers, great warriors. For him reading is a form of pantheism.

For anyone who is a fan of Borges already, this is a delightful book with incisive insights into their favorite writer’s mind and for those still not converted to the cult, it is a gentle reminder to go and read him carefully, and more generously.

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An Interview with the Tango Singer

Maya Jaggi interviews Tomás Eloy Martínez, whose The Tango Singer, was one my own best reads last year.

…the novel aims to “draw a map of the city of Buenos Aires that can’t be seen, an urban topography of the unknown”, though the labyrinth he depicts is one in time, not space. “A large part of Argentinian history concludes with an act of violence,” he says in London. “The dictatorship ended with a war – the Malvinas – with 30,000 desaparecidos in the concentration camps. All stories are contaminated with violence.”

He had been asked to write a factual book about the capital, but it came to him as a novel, in a dream. Set in late 2001, the story unfolds amid Argentina’s financial crash, with spiralling inflation, a bizarre succession of five presidents within 15 days, and 30 people killed in rioting in Buenos Aires. Bruno, who leaves Manhattan just before September 11, finds Argentina’s meltdown more urgent and astonishing than the terrorist strike on the twin towers. For Martínez, too, who was visiting as “the country was on the verge of collapse”, it was a “more absorbing reality that a whole country was disappearing from the map. Why must what happens in the US be more important than the terrible things that happen in Buenos Aires or Baghdad?”

Related links:

Review of Santa Evita by Tomas Eloy Martinez
Review of The Peron Novel by Tomas Eloy Martinez
A review of The Tango Singer (from Independent)

Link via Literary Saloon

A Literary Journey to Brazil

Jorge Amado, Brazil’s most celebrated novelist, was, like the country, larger than life. His novels (“Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon” and “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” were reissued this past fall by Vintage; “Tent of Miracles” and “Tieta” in 2003 by University of Wisconsin Press) burst with energy — rollicking, robust, earthy tales from the northeast port cities of Ilheus and Salvador, of worker strikes, rubber booms and busts, and mulatto beauties. (The film versions of “Dona Flor” and “Gabriela,” incidentally, are classic ’70s softcore fare, starring the sumptuous Sonia Braga.) Amado, embraced in the U.S. during the Latin boom era of the ’60s and ’70s, had been pumping out hardy, proletarian-style novels since the ’30s, though by the ’50s they had turned more comic, lighthearted and bawdy.

Over at Salon, Anderson Tepper writes about the literary journey to Brazil. My own reading of literature from Brazil is limited to Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (that I did not quite catch), Twelve Fingers by Jo Soares and The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Rozaa, a detective novel which was left incomplete.

The best reading on Brazil, however, was Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World.

Related Post

link via Splatlit

A Literary Thaw in South America

Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa make up after a brawl thirty years ago. I am personally very delighted since both are my favorites.

A special edition of García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, to mark this year’s 40th anniversary of its publication, is to include a prologue by Vargas Llosa. “Both men are in agreement over this,” a spokesman for Spain’s Royal Academy, which is publishing the edition, told the Guardian yesterday.

The agreement comes despite the fact the two have not spoken since they came to blows in a Mexican cinema in 1976. The book is to be published in March, when it will be presented to a meeting of national Spanish language academies from around the world at Medellín in Colombia.

The introduction is reported to be an excerpt from Vargas Llosa’s laudatory book on García Marquez, published when the two were friends in 1971, called History of a Deicide. The Peruvian writer had apparently refused to allow the book to be republished after his falling out with García Marquez. He finally relented last year, adding it to a collection of his complete works in Spain. “There is no point in censoring a part of your life,” he said at the time. Both writers have remained silent about the reasons for their brawl, except to say it was about something personal.

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Link via Literary Saloon

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira

César Aira is one of the most prolific contemporary Argentinian writers. His “An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter” recounts the transformation of Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858), a German painter who is deformed during one of his travels across South America. This ‘deformation’ in reality is a transformation as well, as Rugendas begins to look beyond the beautiful landscapes of South America and into the faces of the native Indians. This change in perspective happens when Rugendas is struck by a lightening bolt.

It has certainly been one of the more unexpectedly wonderful books I came across this year, elegant with a dense story that is most poignant when the bolt of lightening strikes Rugendas and transforms him even while deforming his face forever.

The storm broke suddenly with a spectacular lightening bolt that traced a zig- zag arc clear across the sky. It came so close that Rugenda’s upturned face, frozen in an expression of idiotic stupor, was completely bathed in white light. He thought he could feel its sinister heat on his skin, and his pupils contraced to pin- points… From that moment on, like all victims of personlized catastrophes, he saw himself as if from outside, wondering. Why did it have to happen to me?

The introduction to the 87 page novella is by Roberto Bolaño who remarks in his preface:

Aira is an eccentric, but he is also one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today.

The novel reminded me of Raj Kapoor’s early film Aag which investigates the same dialectic of Beauty and the Beast, but this book is far more spectacular in its meditation on the relationship between reality and art, as well as an encounter, or clash, if you like, of civilizations.

A more detailed review.

‘Il Postino’, Pablo Neruda and Makhdoom


“And it was at that age…Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.”
Pablo Neruda

‘Il Postino‘ (The Postman) is a movie about a fumbling postman whose job is to deliver mail to Pablo Neruda while the latter is in exile on an island in Italy. This is partly fictitious. I don’t have his autobiography with me so I cannot verify about this incident if at all it is mentioned in the book, I don’t remember reading about it.

Mario watches a documentary news item in a cinema recounting the journey of Neruda to Italy. When he is asked to deliver mail to him, he gets interested in Neruda’s poetry so that he too, like Neruda, can “impress the girls”.

Starting with this rather innocuous motive, he begins to understand the art of writing poetry and imbibes ideas from Neruda himself. The dialogues are wonderful and the interactions between the postman and the Poet are a delight every time Mario goes to deliver mail to Neruda. The rustic intelligence of Mario is pitted against the wisdom of the Neruda and the brilliance comes through despite the translation.

There area couple of sentences that I particularly liked. Mario takes a poem from Neruda to impress a girl he likes (called Beatrice). When Neruda castigates him for doing so, he responds with the following, leaving the poet speechless:

Poetry doesn’t belong to those who write it, it belongs to those who need it

Later, his friendship with Neruda evolves and he starts understanding “complex” words like “metaphors” and starts writing poetry himself. Neruda also helps him in convincing Beatrice to marry him. When the priest discovers that Mario wants Neruda, a well known communist, as his best man, he is outraged:

Priest: Find yourself a person who isn’t a communist. If Neruda doesn’t believe in God, why should God believe in Neruda. What sort of a witness would he be?

Mario: God never said a communist can’t witness at a wedding

The movie is peppered with snippets from Neruda’s poetry. Here is a short (abou 9 minutes) clip available at youtube where Neruda composes a poem, and Mario begins to interpret it. At the end he makes a powerful comment:

Is it that the whole world is a metaphor for something else?

The clip:

A spoiler here, so don’t proceed if you intend to watch the movie yourself), Mario is invited to attend a communist demonstration and dies there. At the end of the movie, Pablo Neruda returns and finds that Mario’s son, born after he has died, is named Pablito.

Mario also records the sounds of his islands to send them on tape to Neruda. This clip captures that recording.

Needless to say, it has been one of the best movies that I have seen for a long time (not that I watch much), it is perhaps also the only movie I was able to watch without any break- and it was twice in two days.

Incidentally, the role of Mario was played by the actor- writer Massimo Troisi who died one day before the movie was released. He had deferred his heart treatment so that he could complete the movie (from Wikipedia)

‘Il Postino’ reminded me of a similar episode in the life of Makhdoom Mohiuddin, the communist poet from Hyderabad. It was recounted in the TV serial Kahkashan, and what I recollect is recounted here.

When the CPI was banned in 1948, Makhdoom was incarcerated in a jail where his cellmate was a young man who had been jailed in trumped up charges by the family of a girl he was in love with. Makhdoom leads him via his poetry to become politically educated. The young man is somehow released and Makhdoom as well, after a gap. Years later, while passing by a town he is informed of the sacrifice of a young man and a woman during the Telengana struggle. Makkhdoom finds the graves of the young man who had been his cellmate and beside his grave, that of that of the girl he had loved.

Makhdoom wrote a very moving nazm when he saw this.

The Kahkashan version is here, it has also been used in a Bollywood film Cha Cha Cha.

Thanks to HD for recommending the movie.

Augusto Pinochet and India

Salvador Allende (right) and Augusto Pinochet

Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator who overthrew the first democratically elected Marxist government in history and who died today at the age of 91, may have been little known in India but he cast a short but eventful shadow on recent Indian history.

The overthrow of Salvador Allende‘s government in the Pinochet- led coup on 11 September 1973 sparked off rumors of similar events happening in India. Those were the years of the Cold War, and Mrs Indira Gandhi was in her early phase of a swing towards the Left in order to defeat the Syndicate within the Congress Party. JP’s “Total Revolution” was seen as a movement to upset her regime, even as the CIA was thought to be in the process of dislodging her regime.

It was in this background that the CPI supported her when she clamped down the Emergency in 1975. The coup in Chile had led the Dange faction within the CPI to strengthen their support of what was perceived as a Center- Left Congress government headed by Indira Gandhi.

Salvador Allende’s brief tenure became well known in India as an example of a socialist government taking power by democratic means, his death during the coup made him a hero in the eyes of the intelligentsia in the country.

However, in the last two decades as India moved towards the United States economically and politically, even this memory became hazy. A recent news story even had a headline that made me wrench: Former Chilean dictator’s health improves as if this was something to be celebrated.To me, it only illustrated the chasm that had come over in India in the intervening years and the ignorance of contemporary history.

The novels of Ariel Dorfman (The Last Song of Manuel Sendero) and more recently Roberto Bolaño made one aware of the brutality of Pinochet’s regime and today, the news his death came just as I finished reading Bolaño collection of short stories Last Evenings on Earth.

This particular collection of short stories is somewhat uneven and a bit of a disappointment compared to his very excellent novels By Night in Chile and Distant Stars. There is one story in the collection, however, that has India in its backdrop. I found it strange that Bolaño used India as a backdrop to illustrate the brutality of the Pinochet years. Reading it, I felt while India may have forgotten Allende and Chile, Chile had remembered India, even if it was in its nightmares.

I quote excerpts from the story Mauricio (“The Eye”) Silva:

It is customary in some parts of India, said The Eye, looking to the ground, to offer a young boy to a deity whose name I can’t remember… outwardly, the ceremony is like a Latin American pilgrimage, but perhaps more joyful, more turbulent, and for the participants, those who know what they are participating in, the experience is probably more intense. But there is one major difference. A few days before the festivities begin, they castrate the boy. The god whose incarnation he is to be during the festival requires a male body- although the boys usually no more than seven years old- purified of male sexual organs. So the parents hand him over to the festivals doctors or barbers, or priests, and they emasculate him. And when the boy has recovered from the operation, the festival begins. Weeks or months later, when it is all over, the boy goes home, by now he is an eunuch and his parents reject him. So he ends up a brothel. These brothels vary; there are all sorts, said The Eye with a sigh. That night, they took me to the worst one of all.

That night, when he (“The Eye”) went back to his hotel, he wept for his dead children, and all the castrated boys, for his own lost youth, for those who fought for Salvador Allende and those who were too scared to fight. Unable to stop crying, he called his French friend, who was now living with a former Bulgarian weightlifter, and asked him to send him an airplane ticket and some money for the hotel.

And his friend said Yes, of course, he would, right away and then: What’s that sound? Are you crying? And The Eye said Yes, he couldn’t stop crying, he didn’t know what was happening to him, he had been crying for hours. His French friend had told him to calm down. At this The Eye, still crying, laughed said he would do that and hung up. But he went on crying, on and on.

As Augusto Pinochet is laid to rest- something that he denied to many of his compatriots during his years in power, one remembers, nay salutes, all those who disappeared, or were silenced and whose silence lies buried in the sea or in lime pits.

An evaluation of his legacy by Marc Cooper: Pinochet Cheats Justice, even in his death

Related Post: Torturing People so that Prices can be Free
Image Acknowledgment ( more images of Salvador Allende)

A Literary Guide to the World

The Salon has a great collection on literary destinations of the world. Some of those that interested me appear below.

Russia: Ken Kalfus provides a backdrop to the contemporary Russia and goes on a nostalgic trip to the past when great literature was written. A couple of remarkable insights:

Alienation, the struggle for a decent life, really bad weather — the universal themes of this vast nation’s literature make us all feel Russian at one point or another…

During the Soviet era, literature was an occupation slightly less dangerous than coal mining

And also this one from Nobokov:

In his notes to “Anna Karenina,” collected in his “Lectures on Russian Literature,” Nabokov recalls that one day when he was a small boy, he and his father encountered an old man on a street in St. Petersburg. The elder Nabokov knew the man, chatted briefly with him and then, after they parted, told his son, “That was Tolstoy.” We don’t know which St. Petersburg street so briefly channeled this confluence of talent.

Unfortunately, Kalfus does not discuss the contemporary literature coming out of Russia, nor some of the recent discoveries from the past, most notably Andrei Platonov.

Chile: A very comprehensive introduction to the literature from Chile, but leaving out, for some reason, one writer who has been making waves in the last decade, Roberto Bolano.

The crazy character of this wondrous land shines in the poems of Pablo Neruda, while its strife under Pinochet is captured best by José Donoso and Patricia Verdugo…

A country not quite like any other: thousands of miles long and never more than a few hundred miles wide, isolated from the outside world by the cordillera de los Andes to the east and the most turbulent ocean on this planet, ironically called the Pacific, roaring to the west. As if Norway and the Gobi, Oregon and Italy, the Alps and Nantucket, had been compressed into one small nation, a land that doesn’t fit into a novel, a land that demands the delirium of poetry. No wonder Chile is known as “un país de poetas.”

A land of poets.

Argentina:

Benjamin Kunkel discusses Borges, Bruce Chatwin, Cortázar, César Aira, Manuel Puig, Marguerite Feitlowitz’s “A Lexicon of Terror” and Edwin Williamson’s “Borges: A Life”.

That he misses out Tomás Eloy Martínez is rather unfair.

From Borges to Bruce Chatwin, the rich and moody literature of South America’s most European nation reflects its homeland’s squandered potential…

And this sense of an Argentina constantly delivered, against its will, into the desolation of reality may also do something to explain why the most moving lines in Borges’ poetry are always those uncharacteristic ones in which the imagination fails and the elaborate structures collapse. To a would-be lover he writes: “I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the hunger of my heart; I am trying to bribe you with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.” To himself he says: “And I don’t know how time can pass/ I who am time, and blood, and pain.” And when at last he goes blind, as his father before him did, he says: “Soon I will know who I am.”

Mexico:

In this place where the bizarre is banal and nothing is quite what it seems, it’s no surprise that the literature will blow your mind…

In front of tourists, Mexicans become consummate actors. They’ll say just about anything to enchant you, to make you lose your mind. This, after all, is a country where the bizarre becomes routine. Not surprisingly, foreigners return again and again as if hypnotized. Their account of life en el México profundo is as captivating as it is untrustworthy.

Ilan Stavan decides to focus less on the literature from Mexico, and more on the writing by Europeans including Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”. This is rather unfortunate since there is so much of literature from Mexico that is of international stature. Mariano Azuela’s” The Underdogs” manages to find a passing reference, as does Juan Rulfo’s “The Burning Plain”, though not his more famous “Pedro Paramo”.

China: “To understand the last century of this vast Far Eastern country, look to the moving stories of Lu Xun, a celebrated memoir of the Cultural Revolution and an engaging, concise history.”

Rest of the World (nothing on South Asia except for Afganisation. Though in the “Middle East” category)

Image Source

Link via Spatlit

The Underdogs- A Novel of the Mexican Revolution by Mariano Azuela


Few novelists have managed to create a successful short novel- some that instantly spring to mind are Turgenev (Father and Sons, Rudin), Juan Rulfo (Pedro Paramo), Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Fiftyfive Five ), even Flaubert (Madame Bovary) and perhaps a few more complete the list.

To this short list also belongs Mariano Azuela’s classic novel about the Mexican Revolution: The Underdogs. In a mere 150 pages, Azuelo captures the tribulations of an Indian peasant leader- Demetrio Marcías and through him, the tribulations of the Mexican Revolution. Suffice would be to quote a a few lines from the novel that also serves as the summary of the novel:

Villa? Obregon? Carranza? Who do I care? I love the Revolution like I love the volcano that’s erupting! The volcano because it is a volcano; the Revolution because it’s the Revolution!… But the stones left above or below after the cataclysm? What are they to me?

“Why do you keep on fighting, Demetrio?”

Demetrio, frowning deeply, absentmindedly picks up a small stone and throws it to the bottom

of the canyon. He stares pensively over the precipice and says:

“Look at the stone, how it keeps going…”

The stone falling into a bottomless precipice is allegorical about the fate of the Mexican Revolution itself.

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Santa Evita by Tomas Eloy Martinez

In an apparent attempt to reduce the popularity of her own blog, Bhaswati Ghosh invited me to guest- post at her blog “At Home, Writing“.

My thanks to her. After all, the risk is all her’s 🙂

***

In the short span of six years between 1946 to 1952, Eva Perón, the wife of the Argentinian dictaror and founder of the Perónist party, Juan Perón, won over the Argentinian people so much so that her popularity was said to rival, if not exceed, that of Juan Perón himself. Having risen from obscurity, the youngest daugher of an unwed mother, her rise had been all the more spectacular.

Tomás Eloy Martínez’s Santa Evita could have been termed as a biographical account Eva Perón’s life had the author chosen to write about her short but eventful life.

Instead, he has chosen to write about her corpse.

Eva Perón’s body, like Lenin’s, was embalmed after she died of cancer at the age of 33, at the height of her popularity. However, before the corpse could be housed in a mausoleum for public display, Juan Perón was overthrown in a military coup, and thus began the after- life journey of Eva Perón, as the incumbent military government wondered what to do with the embalmed body.

To bury the corpse could have, they feared, incited the loyal Perónists and even the masses. And Eva dead was perceived as more dangerous than the living one.

Even a few replicas were created to mislead any followers, and attempts were made to bury them. For over a decade, the corpse and the replicas changed hands and locations, traversing within Argentina and to Europe- one replica was buried in Bonn and the actual corpse in Milan, Italy from where it was finally recovered and returned to Juan Perón after his return from exile in Spain.

Martínez recounts the stories of all those that came in contact with the corpse, and the often calamitous ends that they came to. Insidious accidents wait those entrusted with the corpse.

Some were haunted till death, some met with unexplicable accidents and others were relentlessly followed by a mysterious person called the ‘Commander of Vengeance’.

It is characteristic of Martínez to write a novel that takes the after- life of Eva Perón rather than her not less eventful life as its theme. He does show us slices of her life too but often as flashbacks and in recollections of those that he meets with.

In a sense, therefore, he underlines the persona that outlived Eva Perón herself.

This is akin to his previous novel, the redoubtable The Perón Novel, where he focussed not so much on Peron’s politically active years, but the seemingly innocuous journey of an exiled dictator returning to his home country in old age.

Santa Evita is a novel within a non- fictional account where Martínez goes out in serach of information about Eva Perón’s corpse- the story emerges as he interviews people associated with Eva or later with her restless corpse.

He makes the reader an accomplice in this journey of discovery- it becomes very much like a mystery in which the reader has as many, and more often as few, clues as the writer. This makes the novel extremely readable, if not racy.

Santa Evita turned out to be unputdownable, and I finished it within a week. Along with The Perón Novel , it has been one of my best reads from Latin America in the last one year.

[Cross posted at Bhaswati Ghosh’s blog: At Home, Writing]

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The Time of the Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa

The Time of the Hero was published in 1961 when Llosa was 25- it was immediately burned by the authorities for exposing the perversities of the Military Academy that was supposed to churn out candidates who would then hopefully join the military.
The novel is tedious in the first half, and begins to make better sense after the first 250 pages. The patience is worth it- all the elements of the future Llosa are there, even as the impact of William Faulker is very much evident.

There are multiple narratives, shifts in time and space, and in the battle between the reader and the writer, the initial incursive strides of the reader in the first 250 pages are shortlived.

The triumph of the writer thereafter is rapid, and unassailable.

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Fact and Fiction behind Chávezspeak

Greg Grandin on the fiction that informs Hugo Chávez’s speeches and the facts of the transformations that he has forced through Venzuela:

There is something quaint—flattering, even—about the way Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez insists on calling George W. Bush “Mr. Danger.” The taunt, which Chávez delivers in English with rolled-out vowels and pinched consonants, evokes an earlier era of cloak-and-dagger politics and lends Bush a certain mystery that he is generally denied in these shrill times of stateless terrorism. Mr. Danger, it turns out, is a minor character in Rómulo Gallegos’s 1929 novel Doña Barbara, a landmark in Venezuelan literature and before the fiction boom of the 1970s one of the most widely read Latin American novels in the world. A “great mass of muscles under red skin, with a pair of very blue eyes,” he is one of many unsympathetic misters who populate 20th-century Latin American social and magical realist prose, beginning in 1904 with the Chilean writer Baldomero Lillo’s abusive mine foreman Mr. Davis and continuing through Mr. Brown, the manager of a U.S. banana company in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In Doña Barbara, the inhabitants of Venezuela’s untamed southern plains at first welcome the arrival of Mr. Danger, believing that he will bring “new ideas” to help modernize the region’s agricultural production. Their hopes are quickly dashed as the “scornful foreigner” loafs in his hammock, smoking his pipe and living off rustled cattle, stirring only to shoot alligators and ply his neighbor with liquor to steal his property and despoil his daughter. Mr. Danger is a “humorist in his own way” who, when introducing himself, repeats his surname in Spanish— peligro—“to emphasize its disconcerting translation.” It’s a trick Chávez, also easy with a joke, likewise enjoys: “The greatest peligro in the world,” he warns, “is Mr. Danger.”

Link via 3Quarkdaily

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Distant Stars by Roberto Bolano

Roberto Bolaño died three years ago at the relatively young age of 50 , at the pinnacle of his career as a writer and before he could be better known in the English knowing world.

The translation into English of his By Night in Chile a few years ago marked his arrival in the English world. Distant Stars is the next book translated into English. His collection of short stories Last Evenings on Earth has been published recently and the translation of his most ambitious posthumus work 2666 is eagerly awaited.

The theme of Distant Stars is the same as the By Night in Chile, the over two decades of unbridled exercise of power by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet after the violent overthrow of the socialist government of Salvador Allende on that other, less remembered, 9/11 of 1973.

The theme has been attempted by other writers, notably by Ariel Dorfman in The Last Song of Manuel Sendero, who made a vastly more experimental attempt at capturing the brutality of those years. In contrast, Distant Stars is a relatively simpler novel, closer to Dr Faustus by Thomas Mann, but less verbose and less tedious.

Mann had taken the analogy of the folk legend of Faust and Mephistopheles where a musician signs a pact with the devil (in this case Nazi Germany), to illustrate the immorality of those who had been accomplices of the Nazi regime. Bolaño, in this work, takes the case of an avant garde poet, Carlos Wieder. In the process he also offers insights into the lives of that generation of poets that was torn apart by the dictatorship: “Madness was not exceptional at that time,” he remarks, when Carlos Wieder inaugurates a new form of poetry by writing one and two liners poems in the sky on an airplane.

While Carlos wins accolades from the regime, other poets meet with a different fate. “The good news was that we had been expelled from the university, the bad was that almost all of our friends have disappered”, the narrator’s friend Bibiano observes. There are many incidents that recount the “melancholy folklore of exile- made up of stories that are fabrications or pale copies of what really happened”.

Carlos meanwhile goes on to experiment with other forms of ‘literature’ till it becomes so grotesque that even the supportive regime finds it difficult to continue to stand by him. Bolaño unmasks the gory details, and Wieder’s participation in the brutalization of the Chilean soceity during the dictatorship. Wieder’s unwritten pact with the devil becomes evident.

Bolaño scores with the fact that he is able to evoke a series of sub texts that are pregnant with possiblities. The following narration, for example, by the Indian maid of one the victims of the Wieder’s murderous crimes indicates a new trajectory that deserves a different treatment altogether.

The maid makes an appearance in the court against the defendent Carlos Weider when his crimes are discovered.

Over the years her Spanish had dwindled. When she spoke every second word was in Mapuche… in her memory the night of the crime was one in the long history of killing and injustice. Her account of the event was swept up in a cyclical, epic poem, which, as her dumbfounded listeners came to realize, was partly her story, the story of the Chilean citizen Amalia Maluenda, who used to work for the Garmendias, and partly the story of the Chilean nation. A story of terror…. Remembering the dark of the crime, she said she had heard the music of the Spanish. When asked to clarify what she meant by “the music of the Spanish,” she replied: ” Sheer rage, sir, sheer, futile rage”.

Cross posted here.

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